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Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture

reviewed by Deborah McPhail - August 15, 2011

coverTitle: Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture
Author(s): Amy Farrell
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814727697, Pages: 219, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the midst of a society at war with excess flesh, it is often difficult to contemplate obesity not as an obvious biological and epidemiological fact, but rather as an idea – as a concept that has been worked on and molded throughout history and deployed in the present moment in and through systems of power such as racism, patriarchy, and colonial-capitalism. Amy Erdman Farrell’s Fat Shame provides such contemplation, and attempts, in the author’s words to “[explore] the roots about contemporary ideas about fatness, the ways these cultural narratives still percolate today, and the voices and actions of those who have rejected dominant ideas about the rights and identities of the fat person” (p. 3). Centering around Goffman’s concept of stigma, Farrell employs an intersectional analysis in order to show in insightful and often novel ways how fatness has come together with race, class, colonialism, and gender to become a “discrediting attribute” that allows fat people to be regarded as “not quite human, entities” (pp. 6-7, author’s emphases).

In order to trace the development of and resistance to the “’spoiled identities’” (p. 139) of fatness and obesity in the present, Fat Shame first provides an adept account of the beginnings of fat stigmatization in the past. Farrell’s historical account of fat stigmatization in America (and sometimes Britain) is based on far-reaching archival sources that include political cartoons and advertisements from magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Life, British and American medical literature, suffrage propaganda, and postcards. Using these sources, Farrell argues that corpulence shifted in meaning and became a “cultural problem” at the end of the nineteenth century, as fatness changed from a body type only an elite few could materialize due to poverty and wasting diseases, to a more democratic type of embodiment that began to concern the middle class. At the same time that body fat began to be associated with the growing middle class, it also came to represent primitiveness. Within interpretations of the Darwinian-inspired scale of civilization, body fat was metonymic with the figure of “the colonized,” as well as with immigrants and people of color generally. On the white middle class, then, fat became a racialized “discrediting attribute” that symbolized the inability to handle both modernity and its accompanying upward mobility (p. 27). Fatness was not only racialized, however, but was also gendered in highly complicated ways, as is best explicated by Farrell’s descriptions of fat representation during First Wave feminism.

Farrrell’s chapter on representations of fat during the suffrage movement is perhaps the most intriguing in the book, as it not only contributes to histories of fat, but also to postcolonial discussions of women’s complicity in colonial projects. Fatness was used by anti-suffrage and suffrage activists alike to punctuate their respective arguments against and for votes for women. Anti-suffragists represented suffragists as fat in their propaganda, conflating fatness and, by extension, rights in the public sphere with primitiveness, as “[h]igher civilizations…were supposedly marked by distinct separation between the sexes” (p. 83). Rather than reject this type of representational racism, suffragists embraced it whole-heartedly. In their publications and cartoons, suffragists represented themselves as slim and “fit for public citizenship” (p. 95, emphasis author’s), while those against suffrage were portrayed as fat, elderly matrons. In such a way, feminists not only propagated but relied on racist discourses of fatness in order to claim themselves as respectable, potentially rights-bearing (and voting), citizens.

The two themes of fat as primitive and fat degeneracy in the feminist movement are brought into the present in the last half of Fat Shame. As an example of the former, Farrell cites media accounts of the Obamas’ efforts to stem their daughter Malia’s former “chubbiness” (p. 135). The Obamas’ participation in the degeneration of fatness is not surprising, Farrell argues, “in a world that will scrutinize their bodies unmercifully for signs of inferiority and primitivism” (p. 135). Thus, in a fat-obsessed country in which hysterical warnings about an epidemic of obesity circulate in the media almost daily, people of color in particular must continue to contend with racialized meanings of fatness with roots in social Darwinism.

In addition to the theme of primitivism in mass culture, Farrell explores fat stigma in the contemporary feminist movement, arguing that feminist “ambiguity” regarding fat is rooted in discourses of fat primitiveness propagated previously by the First Wave feminist movement (p. 116). For instance, Farrell argues that the reluctance of the more mainstream feminist movements to regard fat stigma as a significant form of oppression in women’s lives can be traced to a “legacy of…focus on body size and fatness, and its inherent connections to fundamental beliefs about race, class, and the evolutionary fitness” (p. 116).

While Farrell is careful to explore fat phobia and the specter of the “fat primitive” in the mainstream feminist movement, she is not as adept at discussing the same in the writings and practices of feminist fat activism. The last full chapter of the book fills a large gap in the literature, providing a history of the fat activist movement generally and the feminist fat activist movement, specifically, through an analysis of interview and archival data. One of the very few shortcomings of Fat Shame, however, is the author’s failure to explicate the ways in which certain facets of the fat activist community have themselves mobilized the discourse of primitivism to “de-spoil” fat identities. For example, T.J. Bryan has pointed out previously the tendency of many white feminist fat activist communities to valorize African American cultures as always-already fat positive (1999, p. 43), a practice she names as a variation of the “noble savage” discourse employed within larger narratives of civilization and primitiveness. This type of deployment of fat primitivism is understudied in Fat Shame.

On the whole, however, Farrell’s explorations of fat primitivism in mainstream and feminist cultures are invaluable to understanding the contemporary stigmatization of fat that has become nearly ubiquitous in America today. Farrell’s text will be of interest for those in a wide variety of disciplines. Scholars in History, Sociology, Cultural Studies, Kineseology/Physical Education, Women’s Studies, and Dis/Ability Studies will find Fat Shame to be not only a fascinating read, but also an appropriate text to assign to both undergraduate and graduate students. More specifically, though, with its lucid and rigorous account of the development and circulation of fat stigma in historical and current contexts, Fat Shame is indeed a soon-to-be-classic text in the field of Fat Studies.


Bryan, T. J. (1999). The perfect fit? Fireweed, 67, 38-45.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16511, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:33:13 AM

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About the Author
  • Deborah McPhail
    Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
    E-mail Author
    DEBORAH MCPHAIL is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. McPhail's work regarding critical perspectives on "obesity" has been widely published in such journals as Radical Psychology, Antipode, and, most recently, Social Science & Medicine. Her doctoral dissertation, a feminist social history of obesity discourse in twentieth-century Canada, is under advance contract for publication with the University of Toronto Press.
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